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I have been working on a postdoctoral research project during the recent two years which has specifically examined the experiences of Swedish military chaplains, healthcare chaplains, and the lives of military veterans in the aftermath of PTSD or moral and spiritual injury. One shared conclusion across these interview studies was that chaplains provide profound assistance amid struggles to fully address existential concerns such as fear of dying, meaning within seemingly meaningless life situations, perceived guilt, loss of loved ones, and many other pressing existential needs i.e. life questions which were not satisfactorily met by the secularized staff and expertise within these contexts where the explored chaplaincy services exist. Yet these chaplains also had to work consciously to preserve their own integrity and identity as pastors and deacons due to the socialization of secularized values, meanings, and practices typical for both military and medical contexts.

Sweden is one of the most secularized countries in the world, yet also among the most open and inclusive. Thus, many religious leaders serve beyond the traditional ecclesiastical domain in contexts such as the Armed Forces, Healthcare, Prisons, Schools, Universities and Airports. These in all their diversity are called chaplains, and often the specific context is employed as a prefix. The Church of Sweden has approximately 5.7 million members out of a population of a little more than 10 million. Hence, a majority of chaplains come from this once state state-affiliated church. Yet, pastors from other denominations, Imams, Orthodox and Catholic Priests, Nuns, Buddhists and other religious representatives also serve as chaplains.

Military Chaplains

Existential concerns may arise amid deployment to conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Mali, amid hospitalization due to medical trauma, or even much later as a result of what was endured during service or after returning. For example, how many former service members felt raw trauma watching Afghanistan fall to the Taliban after they had personally invested so much, seen so much sacrifice and the brutal realities there? Do military and medical staff have the training, time, or other resources to address the myriad repercussions of service fully? And without sufficient support, will these moral injuries fester?

It may seem obvious that chaplains can support service members navigating existential concerns which revolve around religious beliefs and/or ideas. Yet even when existential concerns do not appear to illustrate explicit or implicit spiritual content, such issues often revolve around questions of life that resonate to broader existential conversation, and this existential conversation can be well assisted by theology which is a very broad so as to include but not be limited to spiritual care and counselling, ethics, morals, virtues, and concepts such as sufferings, forgiveness and atonement. Such knowledge can facilitate ruminations that have no clear or evidenced-based answers such as: “what happens if I die”, “I am afraid of dying”, “I feel guilty for what I have done”, “I am losing my inner moral compass”, “the hate in me is growing after my battle buddy was killed in the ambush”, and “how can I amend for what I have done”.

It is also difficult to overstate the importance of the absolute confidentiality which dictates that a military chaplain cannot reveal that which is shared by any individual. In contrast, each military psychologist is required to report any finding from a consultation that may be perceived to affect the service.

Chaplains characteristically draw on knowledge and practice that is built upon but not limited to practical theology, spirituality, rituals and liturgy, and awareness of pastoral and spiritual care and counselling. In other words, chaplains’ expertises stem from sacred tradition(s) and the practical experiences of providing support and counselling. The knowledge and practices of chaplains are employed in various ways depending on the contexts and the needs. Military chaplains also build upon generations of expertise regarding the death of soldiers, grief, and funeral practices. When not deployed, much of the support leans towards pastoral and spiritual care counselling. During deployment, the sociological concept of lived religion is particularly useful and well-illustrated because then sermons, prayers, and blessings become an integrated and important part of the daily life in the camp. The function of a military chaplain during deployment has many parallels to the function of a pastor as a head of a congregation.

Deployment also challenged the clergy identity of Swedish military chaplains in a specific way since all of the interviewees (all pastors within the Swedish Armed Forces) had been fully armed with assault rifles and combat gear amid deployment. This illustrated to be a stark contrast to many other armed forces chaplaincy services around the globe. It was and is voluntary to carry assault rifles, but all deployed chaplains within this study chose to be armed as a way to adjust and integrate into the military culture. As non-combatants, each chaplain had the right to defend themselves but not actively participate in military operations. And thus, they did, from time to time, follow the troops on lighter missions. This offered a unique opportunity to understand the field environment and earn the troops’ trust. But their clergy identity could also have been compromised if they had engaged in combat.

Healthcare Chaplains

Healthcare chaplains operate in a somewhat different setting to military chaplains. Within healthcare, there is often less lived religion and more direct support of family. This could include sudden trauma and tragedy, accompanying patients during illness or even terminal experiences, support for medical staff who are grappling with life, death, guilt and isolation (illustrated during the Covid-19 pandemic), and spiritual and pastoral counselling. A salient feature of healthcare chaplaincy is also to be available to medical personnel who are stressed, understaffed, and ever-fluctuating. In some healthcare settings, with a high staff turnover, it may be that the chaplain is the most enduring person on the site, and maybe even more importantly the one who has time to converse deeply.

People bring their identities into any setting, whether such a context is organized around secularized values, meanings, and practices or not. This suggests that an overly exclusive secularized approach may risk compromising the capacity to care for the full diversity of identities with their varying values, meanings, practices, and cultural content. Such human richness and diversity call for complementary practices and beliefs. Chaplains can discuss and maybe even present potential answers to questions which other approaches simply do not address.

Another evidenced observation resonates with the human condition of being in the world because this state of being must include suffering. The idea that to suffer is a part of life is a cornerstone in both theology and pastoral and spiritual care and counselling. This is a field that any chaplain navigates with habit, care and epistemological expertise. A third approach to the utility of chaplains revolves around altered living conditions. Existential concerns tend to be few when everything in life is smooth sailing and little or no problems are met. However, when such life conditions are altered, whether on a patrol in Mali, in a hospital bed in Sweden or due to the pandemic threat of Covid-19, existential concerns tend to accelerate and become more pronounced. Such changes and threats can bring people closer to what is perceived to illustrate long-lasting tradition(s), rituals, and existential safety which resonate with the timeless being. Such can be embodied by a chaplain, a person who can bring these traditions, practices and conversations to any room or location worldwide, even that final patrol or night in the hospital.

However, many healthcare chaplains (both pastors and deacons) also narrated that this context included potential compromises, even threats, to their clergy identity. From time to time concerns were raised by healthcare staff regarding identity markers such as the white collar and other symbols, especially amid collaboration with the healthcare personnel. In these situations, the chaplains were compelled to defend their clergy identity. Healthcare chaplains in Sweden who belong to the Church of Sweden are employed by the church even when they serve full-time within the healthcare context. This serves as a contrast to other chaplaincy services in various countries and reinforces the motivation to safeguard the clergy identity among Swedish chaplains.

About the author: Jan Grimell, PhD, is a postdoctoral researcher in the Unit for Research and Analysis within the Church of Sweden